Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Big Brown fights with his jockey, Kent Desormeaux, in the stretch before he crosses the finish line last in the 140th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. on Saturday, June 7, 2008.

Image: Chang W. Lee, NYTimes.

Big Brown was the favorite to win to today’s Belmont Stakes, the 140th time this classic race has been run. Big Brown started from the far inside post position and ran against eight rivals in the 1.5 mile (2.41 kilometers) race, often referred to as the “Test of a Champion.” The record for this race, 2:24, was set by the mighty Secretariat when he won the Triple Crown in 1973.

Big Brown finishes DEAD LAST! (But at least he survived).

[images and race video included below the fold]

The undefeated Big Brown, who never ran better than third in today’s Belmont Stakes, made history by becoming the first Triple Crown hopeful to finish dead last in the Belmont Stakes. In fact, Big Brown’s losing margin was so great that no one bothered to record exactly what it was. What happened?

The race started off innocuously enough. Big Brown loaded calmly into the gate and broke well at the bell. But the trouble began early when he was apparently kicked by a horse running in front of him before entering the first turn. Even though it is not unusual for a horse to be kicked during the running of a race, did it negatively affect Big Brown? Or perhaps the freakish heat and humidity harmed his performance?

“It was hot as hell out there,” complained Kent Desormeaux, Big Brown’s regular jockey. When Desormeaux asked Big Brown for his typical explosive run on the backstretch, the horse, who was in third place, didn’t respond, despite having a clear path. Big Brown’s competitive edge disappeared.

“He was empty. He didn’t have anything left,” Desormeaux later reported. “I had no horse. He’s the best horse I’ve ever been on so I took care of him.”

Deciding that Big Brown was in some form of distress and would not finish in the money anyway, Desormeaux eased him up in the backstretch, ending up finishing dead last to 38-1 long shot, Da’ Tara ($79, $28 and $14.80), a Tiznow colt trained by Nick Zito. Da’ Tara, who led wire-to-wire, won by 5 1/4 lengths in a truly unimpressive time of 2:29.65, with Denis of Cork ($5.80 and $4.10) in second place and Anak Nakal ($7.60) and Ready’s Echo ($6.20) finishing in a dead heat for third. Interestingly, Zito also trained Anak Nakal. But even Zito was concerned about Big Brown’s astonishingly poor performance.

“I was watching Big Brown,” remarked Zito. “Obviously, he wasn’t Big Brown.”

Tired, but victorious. Jockey Alan Garcia, atop Da’Tara, loks back at the field after crossing the finish line during the 140th running of the Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park.

Image: Al Bello (Getty Images) [larger view].

Unfortunately, as he slowed down, Big Brown injured another horse in the race. When Desormeaux eased him up, his horse wobbled into a competitor, Tale of Ekati, injuring that colt by stepping on Ekati’s right hind heel and cutting it badly.

But Big Brown was not obviously hurt himself. Track veterinarian, Larry Bramlage, said that an early post-race examination indicated that the horse did not sustain an injury — a concern to everyone who watched in horror as Eight Belles collapsed and died on the racetrack a few short weeks ago.

“He looked fine during the race,” Bramlage said. “All I saw was when Desormeaux slowed him down. The veterinarian inspection team did not find anything wrong with him and he was not lame.”

So what happened to Big Brown? He is not obviously injured (although who knows what a more thorough examination might reveal in the next few days), but he also was clearly not himself today. Was it the heat and humidity? Did the lasix (to prevent him from bleeding) with cause him to become too dehydrated to run? Or maybe it was the lack of his monthly steroid injection? Or the repaired quarter crack in his left hoof? Perhaps it was the threeday break from training while his hoof injury was repaired? All of these factors, or some combination of them? None of these factors?

I am surprised that Big Brown did not win the Belmont, but I also have said several times that Big Brown is NOT a great horse, that he is simply the best of a very poor group of horses. This sad performance strongly reinforces my opinion.

Start of a Belmont Stakes (not the 2008 race).

Image: Getty Images [larger view].

What did you all say would happen to Big Brown in today’s Belmont Stakes?

Watch Big Brown’s astonishing Belmont Stakes loss [2:44];


  1. #1 Carleen
    June 7, 2008

    Kent lost the race

  2. #2 tvnewsbadge
    June 7, 2008

    I don’t know if this race proves anything about the quality of Big Brown one way or another. I’m willing to wait until the results of the investgations that are sure to follow.

    I do know this, however, it good that the jocky cared about this horse, because I would not be surpised that we’re going to find out that his “connections” sure didn’t.

    Kent Desormeaux is, in my mind, a real hero here, for taking care of his horse.


  3. #3 "GrrlScientist"
    June 7, 2008

    indeed. i am glad that kent took care of big brown by safeguarding his health. and like you, i doubt that his hedge fund owners give a rat’s ass about big brown beyond his sale value. but it is clear that the horse was running badly in the race, and would have not finished in the money anyway, so kent made the best decision possible by easing him up.

  4. #4 Reality Check
    June 7, 2008

    I didn’t expect Big Brown to win the race, in fact I was surprised he finished the race without going lame. He’s a ticking time bonb of unsoundness

  5. #5 johngalt
    June 7, 2008

    I DID expect Big Brown to win and I WAS rooting for him. What everyone I’ve heard speculate about the reason for his failure seems to overlook is that the Belmont race is 1.5 miles versus a mile and a quarter (or less) for the other two triple crown races. Big Brown had to be held back at the start. He’s a sprinter. It’s not surprising that he couldn’t make a strong finish in a race 20 percent longer than the two he won. The freak northeast heat wave didn’t help him any either.

  6. #6 ivegotaminute
    June 7, 2008

    I applaud Kent for having the sense to slow down Big Brown and probably save his hoof. I also agree that Big Brown is not a phenomenal horse and that he is just the best out of a poor group of horses and I may add a poor group of people. I mean really, it is no great wonder to the rest of the horse community (the few that aren’t involved in racing and have brains) why Big Brown and other race horses have bad feet. These two and three year old horses aren’t meant to run this hard and encounter this much stress at such a young age. Horses don’t fully mature till they are five. It’s like having a thirteen year old compete in the Olympics. Its not right and the child will probably have som eosrt of injury immediately or later on in life. And when they breed these unsound horses to each other they produce more horses that are set up for lameness (in there hooves). It just so happened that Big Brown happened to get a dose of genetics. Racing horses at such a young age is cruel, it ruins the horses and breaks down their legs literally so that they live in pain for the rest of their lives, and no amount of shoeing can help them. I think that Big Brown’s owners got a taste of their own medicine, racing a horse that was too young and he finally wore out. Take that for not properly taking care of you horse and take that the rest of all horse racing fans and all of the people out their that still think horse racing is the ‘sport of kings’. More like ‘sport of abuse’ if you ask me.

  7. #7 Daniel
    June 7, 2008

    I agree that Kent did the right thing at the end of the race. But how did he get in that situation? It’s clear looking at the tape that Big Brown wanted to take an early lead and Kent held him back. While this may have been a sound decision from the point of energy conservation, it’s a real question as to whether it was sound from a psychological perspective. This horse ran Kent’s race, not his own. It’s easy to second guess here and say it would have been better off to just let him run . We will never know for sure if that’s true. But Kent’s racing strategy has been questioned in other races, and it’s sure to be questioned here again.

  8. #8 Judy
    June 7, 2008

    I questioned the reasoning for running any horse that has an injury to it’s hoof or it leg for that fact. It has been well know that theses horses have been bred to the point that their legs are too fragile and they are being ran at to young of an age. I applaud a jockey that listen to the horse and not the trainer or owners. I wish someone would have been listening to Eight Belles and Barbaro so niether horse would have been destroyed. It has always been said you can judge someone’s character by how they would treat an animal and this jockey knew something wasn’t right. Maybe they won’t find anything and then again had he pushed Big Brown, the horse could have met the same fate as Barnaro and Eight Belles. He made the right call.

  9. #9 Deborah
    June 7, 2008

    Once again, horse racing fails on a national stage. Fortunately, it was not as heartbreaking as Eight Belles in the Derby or Barbaro in the Preakness in 2006. But once again, it seems that the sport needs to take a good look at itself.
    I have been in love with this sport since I was a child and have gradually watched its demise. Breeding for speed alone; huge syndication deals; steroids and other drugs. I can’t help but think that Big Brown did not perform today because he hadn’t received his monthly dose of steroids since April. A truly ignoble end for a noble animal.

  10. #10 susan barackman
    June 8, 2008

    Big Brown probably had the reaction we all have when we first hear of a new USDA “disease tracking” program called NAIS. We do not want to be tracked by the govt, either. If you have not heard of NAIS(National Animal Identification System (NAIS) , do not be surprised. It is really not about tracking animal disease…it is a plan to benefit agri-gbiz to make U.S. meat products acceptable to Japan to aid the big NIAA producers in their overseas marketing. But while they are exempt from the expensive chipping and reporting requirements for individual animals (they wrote the rules) Big Brown’s owner and all the rest of us who own even one livestock animal will have to register our premises, microchip and file birth, death and movement reports on every animal we own within 24 hours or face huge fines.

    The stated intent for NAIS was changed from aiding exports to animal health when they realized they would never get people to agree to this so the big corporations and factory farms could get richer on the backs of small ranchers and farmers.

    Under NAIS if animal disease is suspected, the USDA can come in and kill all critters in a 6 mile radius.

    I know this all sounds silly and like a conspiracy theory, but it is written in the NAIS business plan. Try a search on the web.
    The USDA is bribing (using $100 million of your tax dollars ) the states to write and implement a compatible plan. We MUST talk to our legislators and tell them that mandatory NAIS in any form is completely unacceptable. If the NIAA members want traceability for exports, let the system be totally voluntary and market driven. Let those who reap the benefits pay the costs. And leave those of us who like owning horses, whether for racing or trail rides, ALONE!

  11. #11 Barn Owl
    June 8, 2008

    I think it’s the distance that makes the Belmont so tough-it demands a lot of the horse’s stamina, of course, but there’s also the psychology of the jockey (and attitude of the horse) to consider. Thoroughbreds are known for their stamina (as compared to Quarter Horses) and speed, but they are only selectively bred for speed. In my experience, they do not have the ability to conserve energy for future needs, or to judge exhaustion levels and ease up accordingly-that’s the job of the human partner, in whatever equestrian endeavor. A typical Thoroughbred will run until it drops of exhaustion…Desormeaux did the right thing in pulling Big Brown up, if he felt the horse was not performing as usual.

  12. #12 steve
    June 9, 2008

    I think someone figured out how to place BIG BETS if he lost-and interfered with him.. .who could we trust to investgate? All we are going to hear is “That’s horseracing”

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